Friday, April 11, 2008

Megan Whalen Turner

The Thief
by Megan Whalen Turner
Recommended Age: 13+

This Newberry Honor Book is the first in a series featuring a thief named Gen and the remarkable world he belongs in. It is a world based, in part, on ancient Greece – but there are details that belong to other eras of history, as recent as the 1500s, and many of the geographical locations, gods, and heroes referenced in this story are the author’s own creation. Nevertheless, those who enjoy medievalism, orientalism, ancient myths and legends, and just plain awesome stories, take note: this is not a series you should miss.

In The Thief, Gen’s boast that he can steal anything lands him in the prison of the King of Sounis. But then it gets him out again; for the king’s magus (not an actual magic-worker, just a scholarly adviser) wants Gen to help him steal something very important to the king. If he succeeds, Gen will be set free and rewarded richly. If he fails, he will die.

Gen accepts the commission, and joins the magus and his strange party on a perilous and mysterious journey. Together with two apprentices and a hardened soldier, the pair venture into the territory of the hostile Queen of Attolia. But what they’re really after is an ancient talisman whose bearer, by divine right, rules the strategic kingdom of Eddis, in the mountain pass between Sounis and Attolia. Many people have gone in search of this stone, known as the Gift of Hamiathes. None of the seekers have returned.

Gen’s quest to steal the stone surpasses all expectations, growing from a caper by a socially irreverent, yet religiously devout thief, into a spiritual journey, a heartbreaking battle, a desperate escape, and surprise upon deeply-moving surprise. This turns out to be one of those virtually perfect books, whose clever set-up and satisfying pay-off inspire my utmost admiration. But besides that, it’s awfully fun to read. After finishing it, I couldn’t sit still until I had read the sequel, titled The Queen of Attolia.

The Queen of Attolia
by Megan Whalen Turner
Recommended Age: 13+

Having read The Thief, I started reading this sequel expecting it to be another nimble, first-person adventure by Gen (a.k.a. Eugenides), the Queen’s Thief of Eddis. In the former book, Gen pulled a fast one on the crowned heads of two kingdoms in order to bring a certain stone to his cousin and queen – a stone that solidified her hold on the throne of Eddis. How do you follow up on such a caper, and such a perfect book?

Why, with something surprisingly different, of course. The Queen of Attolia is a third-person novel that, for a good proportion of its pages, pulls back from the personal affairs of its characters and views a complex and portentous march of historical events. The characters, in these passages, are not people so much as nations: the three kingdoms of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia, whose delicate balance of peace and security is upset by a single decision by the titular Queen. And if Gen doesn’t somehow steal peace between at least two of the countries, the nearby Medean Empire will soon have a foothold and all three kingdoms will be lost.

If the subtlety of the shifting political situation, the fortunes of war, and the perilous high-wire-walk of diplomacy with the Mede go over your head, have no fear. For Gen is still, after all, the hero of this story. Only now, he must come to grips with a shattering, life-changing loss. He must leave behind his old role as the irreverent, self-reliant boy-hero and become a grown-up hero of a completely different type. He must risk more than he has ever risked, including his very soul.

Even with its intervals of “zooming out” and taking the more “panoramic view” — passages that you welcome because they relieve the tension a bit — The Queen of Attolia is an increasingly suspenseful and emotionally powerful book. The closer Gen gets to stealing the seemingly unstealable, the more you fear for him and for his entire world. Meanwhile, the two queens that share center-stage with Gen are contrasting studies in the twin mysteries of ruling power and the female heart. In the end, this journey into Ms. Turner’s captivatingly original ancient-Greek-cum-medieval-Europe fantasy world hinges on a spiritual truth that touches the root of any and every faith.

The third book in the series, The King of Attolia, is due to be released in June, 2007. I am intensely looking forward to it. [UPDATE: *Passage of time*] My prediction about it, based on the first two books in the series, would be that somehow, Gen must bring a new kind of stability to the third kingdom in the region, Sounis; and that until he does, the threat of the Mede will not be relieved. If you just read that and wondered, “Huh? What’s he going on about?” then you should read The Thief and this book. You’ll see.

The King of Attolia
by Megan Whalen Turner
Recommended Age: 13+

In this third book in the series centering on young Gen, we find out what happens next after The Thief of Eddis steals the heart and hand of The Queen of Attolia. After falling madly in love with the first two books, I waited with bated breath for the book to be released (in paperback, anyway). And now my waiting is over! Hooray!

Before I tell you anything about this book, let me just say: This has become one of my very favorite series. I hope and expect there will be more to come on the exploits of Gen. Every page of these books is filled with pleasures, from the razor-sharp dialogue to the delicious palace intrigue. The series inhabits a fantasy world in which ancient Greece and medieval Europe meet, a world in which three small kingdoms on a peninsula are caught between the powers on the Continent and a threat of the Mede Empire, a world where soldiers are equally at home with swords and guns, where spies and assassins lurk, and where the gods sometimes seem to be just out of sight.

Almost as amazing as the author’s breadth and depth of imagination is the fact that each book in the series, so far, breaks new narrative ground, without giving up an iota of quality. The Thief was Gen’s first-person account. The Queen of Attolia pulled back to a third-person narrative with a fairly detached point of view. The King of Attolia zooms in again, but on a new character: a soldier of the palace guard, Costis by name. We first find Costis in deep trouble, having lashed out impulsively at an insult to his guard...and punched his newly crowned, one-handed king in the face.

Costis expects to die. He hopes to be hanged, but fears being tortured, fears that his family will lose everything if a conspiracy against the crown is suspected. The next-to-last thing he expects is to become the king’s personal guard, sparring-partner, and target for acid remarks. The very last thing Costis expects is to grow to admire, care about, and believe in this new king, who (it becomes more and more clear) has been hiding his true qualities.

But it’s a dangerous time for young King Gen: the country barons are divided in their loyalty, and a neighboring empire is looking for a weakness to exploit, and the army — particularly the palace guard — is torn between despising the foppish new king and fearing what may happen if his power begins to rival the queen’s. Will Attolia become a puppet of Gen’s native Eddis? Will the king himself be the puppet of a stronger will? While everyone watches and wonders, and while Gen carries on acting ridiculous, traitors and assassins are laying their traps... and slowly, painfully, Costis discovers his own growing loyalty to the king.

This is a book, and a series, that I think deserves not just to be read once or twice for entertainment. I think this one deserves to be kept, shared, discussed, and cherished. It has humor to make you laugh, as well as wit to make you wince; danger enough to make you tremble; tenderness to bring tears to your eyes; moments of hard-won triumph to make you crow with pride; nerve-wracking tension, brain-twisting intrigues, and surprises galore. If you haven’t discovered Megan Whalen Turner’s work yet, and if you feel the “end” of the Harry Potter series is an opportunity to venture forth on a new favorite series, consider this series!

EDIT: Megan Whalen Turner has also published a book of short stories titled Instead of Three Wishes. I'm interested!

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